November 12: Jews Acquire Family Names

Kaiser_Joseph_II_in_Uniform_mit_Ordensschmuck_c1780_2In a decree promulgated on this date in 1787, Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II ordered all Jews in the Hapsburg Empire to acquire family names. The decree came five years after the Edict of Tolerance, which permitted Jewish children to attend schools and universities, eliminated vocational restrictions for Jewish adults, abolished stigmatizing rules of dress and conduct, and restricted the use of Yiddish and Hebrew to the private sphere. With the 1787 decree, according to Alexander Beider (in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe), “Jews were free to choose their names subject to approval of Austrian officials. If a Jew had not chosen a name, one was assigned. The choice depended only on an Austrian official’s imagination.” Some of the names referred to occupations, others to personal traits  (Redlich: honest; Freundlich: friendly). Other names, writes Beider, were “compound, made up of two roots.” Examples of these roots include: metals (Eisen: iron; Kupfer: copper), colors (Braun: brown; Roth: red; Weiss: white); flora (Baum: tree; Blum: flower; Wald: forest); size (Klein: small; Gross: big); “words related to the heavens” (Himmel: sky; Licht: light; Stern: star); topography (Berg: mountain; Feld: field; Stein: stone); and habitations (Dorf: village; Heim: home). “The resulting names,” Beider concludes, “often are associated with nature and beauty. It is very plausible that the choices were influenced by the general romantic tendencies of German culture at that time.” Joseph II’s decree was part of his policy of enlightened despotism, reflective of the European Enlightenment, which included the abolition of serfdom, the death penalty and judicial brutality, and the establishment of compulsory education. Most of his reforms were overturned, however, following his death at 49 in 1790, and rights would not be fully restored to Jews until 1867.

“[P]ersonal names represent an organic part of Jewish culture. Their corpus developed over the centuries in a natural way, inside the community. Their history is closely related to that of Yiddish. On the other hand, but for a very few exceptions, the family names were invented during a short period of time, around the turn of the nineteenth century.” —Alexander Beider

For more information on this topic, read Bennett Muraskin’s article on Blog-Shmog, “The Origins and Meanings of Ashkenazic Last Names.”

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Comments (24)

  1. Hi Larry,
    What about “Priestly” names, such as Cohen & Levy? How had they been retained in a (previous) environ with no “family names?”

    To quote Shel Silverstein, “I’d like to go a workin’ on the levee, but the only levee I know is the Levy that lives down the block!” (Folksinger’s Blues)

  2. Biblical based last names also include Abrams/Abraham, Isaacs, Jacobs, Josephs, Davidson, Solomon, Daniels etc. and acronyms like Katz for kohen tsedek (righteous priest)

    There are also communal names like Rabin (rabbi), Cantor or Kazan etc.

  3. My grandparents came from Europe. My grandmothers surname was Seipka & fathers surname is wolfik. I believe I have Jewish ancestors. Where can I confirm this?

    • Hello Erica Sharp,
      the best place to start your reaserch is to find birth place and dates. Then get in touch with the local Jewish communities in the country of origin. In case they still exist, they might have a precious information for you. Good luck!

  4. Pingback: the-origins-and-meanings-of-ashkenazic-last-names-12849 | Wikidaddy

  5. I’m working with the last name Dresser, pronounced Drescher, which is apparently German and means “thresher.” Can I reasonably assume, given the Germanic origin, fact that it’s an occupational surname, and the information that the first known bearer was from the Austrian Empire c. 1850, that the name has been in use since the late 18th century?

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  10. Thomás Gleizer Feibert - Reply

    My family name is “Gleizer”, and my great grand parents come from dniepopetrovsky(when it was part of the russian empire)! Does any one come from that region of Ukraine?

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  15. my familys privious last name was pantofelmacher . they lived in warsow and perished inthe ghetto.

    do anybody know anything concerning this name or my family.

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  17. Pingback: Jewish Surnames Explained 47.5k 1.3k 234 By Bennett Muraskin 1389196581Richard Andree’s 1881 map of the Jews of Central Europe. Ashkenazic Jews were among the last Europeans to take family names. Some German-speaking Jews took last names as early as

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